Three years ago Laurent Tourondel was a chef without a kitchen whose name was anything but a household word.
Today the 40-year-old has an empire so well known it can use shorthand for Bistro Laurent Tourondel: BLT. This month his second cookbook has just been published, his fifth restaurant in New York City -- BLT Market -- has opened to upbeat reviews and he is cooling his suede-topped heels while his first restaurant in Los Angeles is constructed in the old Le Dome on Sunset Boulevard for an opening this winter. Between now and then twomore BLT restaurants will open, in Dallas and Westchester County, N.Y., joining those serving his Americanized French food in Washington, D.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
None of this would be happening without a Wolfgang-worthy business plan. But it was not what anyone, including Tourondel, imagined when his last backer abandoned him at what seemed to be the peak of his career, at a critics’ favorite restaurant called Cello in Manhattan. The breakup left him so disillusioned with high-end, formal dining that at the groundbreaking BLT Steak, he came back with a whole new way of cooking. He maintained his obsession with sublime ingredients combined in surprising ways. But he eliminated all the fuss.
Tourondel’s original concept is essentially a great American steakhouse crossed with a classic French bistro. The prime meats, generous portions and hearty flavors are all there, but they are matched with creative sauces, jazzy combinations and imaginative side dishes. And the ambience is just as important. Tourondel understood, probably even before New York diners did, that the future lay in top-quality food served in a relaxed but not unsophisticated setting.
Given that he comes at American appetites with a European’s awe, he is also not afraid of excess. All his meals start with a hyper-rich bread item, whether a giant Gruyere popover at BLT Steak or cheddar-cream biscuits with melted butter at BLT Fish. What follows is usually just as irresistible.
“People who pay a lot of money for what I do should not leave hungry,” Tourondel says simply. His most rewarding moments, he also says, come while “watching customers leave my restaurant -- happy.”
His new coffee-table book, titled, not surprisingly, “Bistro Laurent Tourondel,” gives a good sense of the line he walks between straightforward and over-the-top cooking. He gives rock shrimp the Buffalo chicken wing treatment, barbecues brisket and even does chili, with corn and a surfeit of sausage, but he also stuffs zucchini blossoms with three kinds of cheese, dresses marinated octopus in a bergamot vinaigrette and steeps home fries in heavy cream with fresh sage. Even basic dishes have a twist, whether fresh carrot juice, mayonnaise and sesame oil in a dressing for a carrot salad or Earl Grey tea as a back note in a bread pudding with apricots. Not everything works beautifully, but you can almost taste the photos.
Tourondel’s first West Coast outlet, a branch of BLT Steak, will offer more raw fish than the original, but otherwise he is sticking with what works. Usually that means Kobe beef and other meats with assorted sauces, and side dishes such as Parmesan gnocchi along with steakhouse classics such as baked potatoes. The specials will be key, since he describes his approach as “seasonal, the best product, originality, but most of all it is a combination of flavors.”
To take that strategy so far and so wide, he is running hard. When a restaurant opens, he is in the kitchen overseeing lunch and dinner service daily; he schedules no meetings when patrons are to be fed because the food is what makes all this possible.
A couple of Thursdays ago he was up at 5:30 at his home in East Harlem, at work on specials by 6 and at a design meeting with the David Rockwell Group by 10, going over details for BLT Burger in Las Vegas and a much more ambitious restaurant in the new Donald Trump Hotel in SoHo in Manhattan. He worked the lunch shift at the new BLT Market in the Ritz-Carlton and went on to a photo shoot and more meetings before returning to the cramped kitchen to oversee dinner service.
Chefs with cloning capability are nothing new; rare is the neon name that does not have a Craft-style map for world domination anymore. But Tourondel is an exception to the Emeril rule. Before he came up with the idea of branding himself as BLT, he was primarily known only at the top of the New York food chain for his exquisitely cerebral fish cookery at Cello, a restaurant in the townhouse of a high-end stereo showroom on the Upper East Side.
When his financial backer pulled the plug in 2002, Tourondel was an angry thirtysomething. He quit cooking, took a year and a half to travel around the world and came back with a very detailed notion of how to build a restaurant empire, which he sold to new underwriters, particularly Jimmy Haber, who had a solid track record with other restaurants and whom he met through publicity agent Jennifer Baum, now of Bullfrog & Baum. His other partner is Keith Treyball, who is involved mostly with the front of the house in the restaurants, Tourondel says.
Some New Yorkers snickered when the high priest of fish announced he would be opening BLT Steak. It seemed like a comedown, especially coinciding as it did with the publication of his cookbook “Go Fish.” But then he opened BLT Fish and the game was on. By the time he launched BLT Prime, and then BLT Burger, the laughing had been silenced as other restaurateurs chased his dust. BLT Steak was easily the most expensive informal new restaurant the city had seen, and it was packed from Day One.
Tourondel, who is originally from Auvergne, in central France, says his first restaurant job was in a Michelin three-star restaurant when he was 12, an apprentice at the mercy of a stereotypically abusive French chef. He started cooking for real after getting booted out of parochial school at 14 and being given a choice by his father of three careers to keep his hands out of trouble: tailor, typist or cook.
He went on to work with name chefs including Jacques Maximin and Michel Troisgros before signing on with Potel & Chabot, the Moscow-based catering company that brought him to the United States in 1992. He says he started out as a pastry chef but learned “you get paid more if you do both.” And so he cooked at CT, owned by Claude Troisgros in New York, and at the Palace Court at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, then was lured back to New York to open Cello. (As he notes, any renown he won in Vegas stayed there, because the competition was nothing like it is today.)
Creativity at Cello earned Tourondel no end of critical huzzahs. William Grimes of the New York Times described him as having “a gossamer touch and an elegant eye” with turbot paired with foie gras wrapped in sage leaves and moistened with sherry jus, and with lobster served in three stages: a piece encased in Sauternes gelee to be melted with warm lobster emulsion, a claw teamed with coriander-spiced vegetables and the roasted tail with favas, morels and gnocchi. No wonder the chef’s eyes go sad and distant when he recalls the closing.
Two years after that dispiriting blow, he was back with a very personal French spin on bacon, lettuce and tomato.
At BLT Market, where the menu follows what is local and in season and shelves near the reception desk hold pickles and honey and other comestibles for sale, the floors are bare wood, the tables have no linens, the waiters wear black striped aprons. A manager says that “Laurent has the touch” for catering to this new world in which guests show up in jeans and T-shirts but still expect Christofle silver to tackle a luxurious burger and fries.
Meals there start with a warm baguette soaked in pesto along with Tourondel-style pigs in blankets. Frites are served in a tall cone, dusted with Parmesan and flecked with slices of fried garlic. A recent special of chicken paillard was the size of a small platter, topped with a schmear of pesto and an heirloom tomato salad. Roast chicken is served with a whole head of roasted garlic, salmon steak is topped with a hefty quenelle of caviar, meatballs are stuffed with ricotta.
Tourondel says the concept will not be as easy to replicate, let alone franchise, as his meat-centric restaurants are. For the BLT Steak in L.A., he may be bringing in one of his trusted corporate chefs, Marc Forgione (son of Larry, one of the pioneers of New American cooking), who is getting the BLT Market up to speed, and maybe some particularly talented line cooks, since he considers staffing the most difficult aspect of empire-building.
Tourondel says he always spends the first couple of months in the kitchen of a new restaurant to push the team up to his standards.
On a recent afternoon, he was tearing into a special of salmon steak wrapped in bacon and declaring the wrapper too thick, tasting new offerings from a young pastry chef (including rum raisin ice cream topped with sensational cranberries in confit) and sending back a slab of glazed black cod for “poquito mas” time under the broiler. (He jokingly adds that his best kitchen Spanish is “mucho trabajo, poquito dinero.”) He also admits that he never sits down to eat.
Tourondel expedites in blue jeans, a white chef’s coat and street shoes, constantly checking his BlackBerry, an attachment he says “accelerates the process” of expansion by letting him stay in constant touch with new restaurants whether in San Juan or on Sunset Boulevard.
See it, showcase it
To come up with new ideas for dishes, Tourondel says he reads endless food magazines, American and foreign, particularly from Australia. But mostly, “I have to visualize it before I can create it. I see it before I taste it.”
In his new book, produced with Michele Scicolone, he showcases many of the dishes now familiar from his many restaurants, but unlike with his solid first book, written with Andrew Friedman, not all the recipes yield restaurant-level results, unfortunately. The famous cheddar biscuits emerged from the oven more like oversized, underbrowned cookies, while broccoli-stuffed portobellos were leaden.
Tourondel is most revealing when he talks about how his adventures might not be possible in France. There, he said, chefs tend not to keep up with trends as much. He thinks Guy Savoy is one chef who comes closest to his strategy, with a string of small bistros.
But he still pays homage to his birthplace. When he notes that he and his top chefs are working double shifts until BLT Market is safely launched, he says he always does things “the French way.”
By which he means, he adds: “The hard way.”